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An African river safari offers one of the most unique opportunities to interact with the continent’s wildlife, both on land and in the water. During dry seasons across Southern Africa, rivers become vital sources of life as animals gather in search of water, and predators seek their next meal. Here, safari-goers have the chance to observe a variety of wildlife, from birds to hippos, elephants, and various predators, all from the best seat in the house: the water.

Imagine drifting down the Okavango Delta, guided by highly experienced experts, while the river sets the pace. You're comfortably seated in a boat with your loved ones, surrounded by nothing but freshwater. The river is flanked by miles of floodplains, hosting an estimated 260,000 mammals that converge at the water's edge, recognizing it as their primary source of life during this time of year. In this moment, you're not just a viewer; you're part of the ecosystem.

We’re delving into the top destinations for a river safari in Southern Africa. Whether you're a seasoned veteran of land safaris, a returning river safari enthusiast, or a first-timer seeking a unique introduction to Africa, these premier African river safari destinations promise an experience unlike any other on the continent - and perhaps even across the globe.

What is the Difference Between a River Safari & a River Safari Cruise?

A hippo spotted on a boat cruise in Zambia | Busanga Bush Camp

A river safari and a river safari cruise both offer opportunities to observe wildlife from the comfort of a watercraft, yet they differ significantly in their pace, focus, and overall experience. A river safari cruise is typically a more leisurely and luxurious affair, where you can relax and enjoy the scenery while indulging in amenities such as specially prepared meals, snacks, and drinks served onboard. The focus of a river safari cruise is primarily on providing you with a leisurely journey along the river.

On the other hand, a river safari encompasses a broader range of water-based safari experiences beyond the luxury cruise format. While some river safaris may indeed involve cruising on a specialized boat, others may take the form of more adventurous outings such as canoeing, white-water rafting, or traditional mokoro safaris. The emphasis in a river safari lies not only on wildlife observation but also on the thrill of exploration and adventure. You may find yourself navigating through narrow channels, encountering wildlife up close, and immersing yourself in the natural rhythms of the river ecosystem.

In essence, while a river safari cruise offers a luxurious and leisurely experience, a river safari provides a more diverse and adventurous exploration of the waterways and their surrounding habitats.

Top Places for a Southern Africa River Safari

1. Lower Zambezi

Baines River Camp, Zambia | Go2Africa
A canoe safari on the Lower Zambezi | Baines River Camp

The Lower Zambezi is a must-see destination when travelling through Zambia, and we are always thrilled to recommend a Zambezi River safari to travellers visiting the region. Offering a diverse range of experiences, a river safari here provides plenty of options to choose from: embark on a multi-day canoe safari, engage in exhilarating white-water rafting for the adventurous, enjoy kayaking, or opt for a more laid-back river safari cruise.

The Zambezi River, situated below the magnificent Victoria Falls, serves as both a haven for safaris and a transit route for transfers between camps along the river. Elephant and buffalo herds graze along the water’s edge as you drift downstream, while hippos bubble beneath the surface and lions and leopards come to quench their thirst, keeping a watchful eye on potential prey. Near-silent pontoon boats offer a front-row seat for observing these creatures in their natural habitats without disturbing them.

Where to Stay in Lower Zambezi:

Lower Zambezi, Zambia
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Baines' River Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat excursions Canoeing Fishing
Lower Zambezi, Zambia
Traverse through the waterways and see wildlife. The main mess tent. Fly camping. Wildlife may be seen from the main tent. View of the Zambezi River. A beautiful sunrise.

Chula Island Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat-based safaris Canoeing Fishing
Lower Zambezi, Zambia
View of the swimming pool and Chongwe River. Exterior of your luxurious suite. Time-Tide-Chongwe-House-2 Time-Tide-Chongwe-House-2 Time-Tide-Chongwe-House-10 Time-Tide-Chongwe-House-11 View of your suite at Chongwe House.

Time + Tide Chongwe House

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat excursions Canoeing Fishing

2. Kafue River

Shumba Camp, Kafue National Park | Go2Africa
When you aren’t exploring the waterways, retreat to safari luxury | Shumba Camp

The origins of this river can be traced right up to the north-western part of Zambia where it rises between the country’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there, Kafue River continues southward, but the entire river lies within Zambia, placing you on a first-rate route for a Zambian safari. As you boat down Kafue, you will pass some of the finest Zambian bank-set campsites- staying here makes the imposing river your playground.

The water’s rhythm ranges from slow and smooth flowing to rapid, but guides are familiar with navigating these rivers in all conditions. When things slow down, you can try your hand at fishing for sport.

Birding opportunities are many here, with carmine bee-eaters making for a particularly special bucket-list sighting. As you flow through Kafue National Park, both its north and south sides offer fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities- a wealth of plains game, lions, and notable semi-aquatic lechwe. Kafue sees its ends when it eventually dispelling into the Zambezi.

Where to Stay in Kafue:

Kafue National Park, Zambia
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Busanga Bush Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Game drives Guided walking safaris Night drives
Kafue National Park, Zambia
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Shumba Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat excursions Day tours Game drives
Kafue National Park, Zambia
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Kafue River Lodge

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat excursions Bush dining Cycling safaris Fishing

3. Lake Kariba

Experience African wildlife from a unique water perspective | Fothergill Island

Covering almost 6,000 square kilometres (about 2,317 square miles), Lake Kariba was formed when part of the Kariba dam wall collapsed in the 1960s, flooding into the Zambezi gorge. Today, the lake remains nearly 6,000 square kilometres (about 2,317 square miles) in size and serves as both a source of water and a habitat for abundant wildlife. Located halfway along the Zambezi in Zimbabwe, Lake Kariba attracts many of the country’s famous animals, making it an outstanding safari destination.

Matusadona National Park is situated on the shores of Lake Kariba, offering wildlife enthusiasts access to the diverse array of animals that inhabit the area. Like many of the rivers on this list, the park boasts a thriving population of birds, along with Nile crocodiles found in its waters. Additionally, the region is known for its robust populations of rhinos and elephants, as well as being home to a substantial number of lions. You can also expect to encounter cheetahs, giraffes, and various antelope species during their exploration of the park.

Where to Stay Near Lake Kariba:

Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
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Matusadona Luxury Lake Safari Cruiser

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat excursions Fishing River cruises Sunset cruises
Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe
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Bumi Hills Safari Lodge

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Animal tracking experience Bird watching Boat excursions Cultural visits
Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe
Fothergill Island Fothergill Island Fothergill Island Fothergill Island Fothergill Island Fothergill Island Fothergill Island

Fothergill Island

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat-based safaris Bush walks Day tours Fishing

4. Chobe River

Right on the Chobe River | Chobe Game Lodge

The Chobe River forms the northern boundary of Chobe National Park and serves as the border between Botswana and the Caprivi Strip, making it accessible from Namibia. While much of it can’t be accessed by 4×4 or boat, the few kilometres that are open for river safaris are well worth exploring! Cruise through open woodlands and riverine forests as you experience some of the best game viewing on the continent.

A Chobe River safari offers views of the largest elephant concentration on the continent, as well as herds of buffalo and other classic game species. You won’t be disappointed if predators are what you are searching for—the waters attract lions, cheetahs, and wild dogs, while crocodiles swim just below the surface. The dry season, which runs from April to October, is the best time to visit Chobe, as large concentrations of game gather along the river. The later you go, the more you will likely see!

Where to Stay in Chobe:

Chobe National Park, Botswana
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Chobe Under Canvas

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat excursions Game drives Photographic safaris Specialist guides
Chobe National Park, Botswana
SANCTUARY CHOBE CHILWERO Sanctuary Retreats - Chobe Chilwero Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana Sanctuary Retreats - Chobe Chilwero Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana Brick-and-thatch suites. Sanctuary Retreats - Chobe Chilwero Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana Sanctuary Retreats - Chobe Chilwero Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana Sanctuary Retreats - Chobe Chilwero Lodge, Chobe National Park, Botswana

Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat excursions Fishing Game drives Photographic safaris
Chobe National Park, Botswana
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Chobe Game Lodge

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat-based safaris Game drives River cruises

5. Okavango Delta

Sanctuary Baines Camp | Go2Africa
Glide along the Okavango Delta in a traditional mokoro | Sanctuary Baines Camp

An Okavango River safari is truly the best way to grasp the wonder of this delta. During the dry season, the Okavango Delta spans approximately 6,000-7,000 square kilometres (2,300-2,700 square miles) in size. When the annual floods occur between June and August, the delta expands to more than twice its usual size, reaching about 16,000 square kilometres (6,200 square miles). Truly, the Okavango Delta stands as a testament to the boundless wonders of nature.

During the peak of the annual floods, this area teems with wildlife, making it the perfect time to explore by boat. Starting in May, mokoro and boat rides commence, and while predator sightings are more common in the later months of the year, experienced trackers and guides know all the right spots for prime viewings. The variety of birdlife here is remarkable, with July marking the first sightings of the endangered African Wild Dog.

Where to Stay in the Okavango Delta:

Okavango Delta, Botswana
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Sanctuary Baines' Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Boat excursions Game drives Guided walking safaris Guided walks
Okavango Delta, Botswana
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Xugana Island Lodge

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat excursions Fishing Game drives
Okavango Delta, Botswana
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Jao Camp

Activities Travellers Enjoyed
Bird watching Boat excursions Bush dining Fishing

Ready to Start Planning Your Southern Africa River Safari?

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Written By

Tammy Straker

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